At first glance the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago's downtown Grant Park is a perfect expression of the American penchant for personal preference. Walking through the festival entrance on a recent overcast Friday, my friend Bob and I were instantly faced with serious decisions. Festival goers studied their detailed, minute-by-minute agendas of which of the 130 bands they planned to see on the eight different stages. The Decemberists or Thievery Corporation at 6:00pm? The Killers or Jane's Addiction at 8:00pm?
Agonizing decisions, and because I'm a pastor they reminded me of the choices people must make when looking for a church. Whether a person wants to join a congregation or explore the faith, the options seem endless. Multi- or mono-ethnic? Welcoming to young families or 20-something hipsters? Cultural elites or the marginalized poor? Gospel proclamation or justice mindedness?
Like those searching for a church, the choices Bob and I had to make were about genres and categories. At noon, before the rain started, we heard Manchester Orchestra, a five-piece rock band from Georgia who play their music fast and loud. Next up was The Knux, two rapping brothers from New Orleans who had the crowd bouncing in time to their rhymes. After a brief stop to hear Thievery Corporation's electronica-infused world music, we strolled past the pulsing dance rhythms of Hollywood Holt and settled in for the folky harmonies and bushy beards of the Fleet Foxes.
The decision by the festival organizers to include such a variety of bands makes sense at a time when satellite radio offers dozens of stations aimed at every possible demographic. The idea of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 seems quaint when online stations offer listeners new and eclectic musical discoveries from around the world. By offering a wide assortment of acts, Lollapalooza appeals to a large mix of people, providing each person with their preferred style of music.
Standing in the rain that afternoon waiting for Bon Iver's set to begin gave me a chance to stretch the "Lollapalooza as church" metaphor further. At some point in our history it became accepted that appealing to personal preferences led to growing churches. Evangelicals often exhibited such segmentation, but only recently was this seen as a strategic move. From this strategic perspective it is unreasonable to expect fans of the youthful and loud Los Campesinos to associate with those who swayed to the electronic-infused world rhythms of Thievery Corporation. Barriers more significant than musical preference—such as race, class, and age—led to pragmatic decisions about which type of people a church existed for. Whether or not these are explicit decisions, most churches are aware that "these types of people" are more likely to attend our church while "those types of people" will probably feel more comfortable at the church down the street.
Our tolerance of the narrow demographics in our churches may be couched in theological language—"We wish to remove every barrier to the gospel"—but what is actually communicated by these pragmatic decisions? It would certainly have been easier for Paul to organize the infant church in Corinth by accepted social characteristics, but such a notion would have repulsed him. It was the very diversity of this church—Jews and Greeks, slaves and free—within a society of race and class division that demonstrated the unique power of the gospel to reconcile people to God and each other. Is it any different today?
Initially I saw Lollapalooza as an apologetic for the impulse to organize our churches by societal divisions, but on Saturday that all changed. It may have been the blazing sun and Chicago humidity, but the festival became less an expression of personal preference than an opportunity to experience an entire range of musical interests.
Reviewing the bands I'd seen over the past day and a half revealed no particular trend. Hip-hop, rock, folk, dance, world, country, and electronica were all represented. I began noticing punk-rock kids watching folk singers and dreadlocked hippies at the hip-hop stage. While the festival crowd was not without personal preference, we often chose variety and diversity over familiarity and comfort. Epitomizing this musical inclusivity was the email I received after the festival's final day from a friend with strong indie-rock cred" "Snoop Dogg [the infamous West Coast rapper] was today's best act. Hands down."
The festival brought two questions to mind while I waited for the bus home on Saturday night, tired and slightly sunburned. First, the Lollapalooza crowds and festival line-up indicate a desire for the broadest musical experience. Might this desire include more than just music? Despite the many things that separate us, there is a growing desire for community that transcends market niche and historical generalizations. Would it seem odd to those with such longings that a congregation chooses to focus only on certain groups of people? Do sermons and liturgy about the reconciled kingdom of God appear at odds with insular worship and fellowship?
Because of the festival's tremendous variety, the second question was about the diversity within our churches. Accepted wisdom has said that congregations must choose their demographic in order to thrive. Regardless of the validity or bankruptcy of this claim, might Lollapalooza's improbable diversity—both the music and the crowds—be a more compelling vision at this moment than what passes for reconciled community in many of our churches?
While it would be silly to take our ecclesiological cues from Lollapalooza, the festival does reveal something significant about ourselves. It seems that many of our attempts at Christian community and worship are neither faithful to the gospel we proclaim nor reflective of the actual interests and desires of those we mean to reach. Would the category-defying indie music hipster who loved the Snoop Dog show know she is welcome at your church? More importantly, would the people she encounters reflect the eclectic and authentic community that can only be sustained by a reconciling Savior?
David Swanson is the Pastor of Community Life at Chicago's New Community Covenant Church. He blogs at http://davidswanson.wordpress.com. "Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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Christianity Today has more articles on church life, including:
Mega-mirror | Megachurches are not the answer or the problem. (August 6, 2009)
Theology in Wood and Concrete | Six Protestant churches that strive to match form with faith. (May 29, 2009)
Lament for Lost Eden | What to look for in a real church. (March 5, 2009)